Sunday, April 22, 2018

Getting a better deal on satellite TV

I was excited recently when our two-year commitment to DirecTV expired. We'd signed up with DirecTV -- leaving Dish Network -- in 2016 after they promised us an attractive package that would seemingly save us money.

But the deal was less than it appeared. We knew from the beginning that our initial low rate wouldn't last, but later discounts that they promised never materialized. Plus, their basic rates went up. Our costs soared, and we ended up pay $98 a month, a ridiculous amount. 

What's more, there were numerous thing about DirecTV that I didn't like.. The user interface was  nonsensical in many ways and some "features" were more annoying than helpful. And there was the time their tech support was unable to solve a problem -- even with multiple attempts -- that turned out to be very simple.

So when the two years we had promised to DirecTV expired, I was eager to go back to Dish Network.  

But things didn't go as expected.

At its website, Dish offered a package for $59.99, plus tax. The package, the ad said, "includes DVR." That looked good. But I had a few questions, so I decided to call them. 

One I reached a Dish rep, he wouldn't even discuss price until I had given him  my social security number and a credit card number. They said it was to establish my credit, but I found it incredibly intrusive.  After I pushed back, and with quite a bit of reluctance from the rep, he eventually relented on the credit card number request. (Geez, even when you buy a car, they're willing to discuss price before checking your credit.)

The pushy rep eventually offered me a package that amounted to $74.99 plus tax. Huh? What happened to the $59.99 a month? Oh, said the rep, that doesn't include the $15 a month for the receiver.

Think about that for a second: You can't watch Dish Network without their receiver. You must have one. So while the Dish website advertises $59.99 a month, it is impossible to actually watch Dish Network at that rate. I suppose you could say you don't want a receiver, but then what? Stare at a blank TV?

Eventually, the rep took $5 off after I agreed to online billing. So that brought it to $69.99 a month plus tax. Also, after I mentioned an offer made on another website, he agreed to give me a $100 Visa giftcard as part of our deal (hint: use the code CARD100).

It took a lot of work, but I seemed to finally have a Dish Network package that was, well, OK.  With tax it would be about $72.50 a month.  Plus the $100 giftcard.

A couple hours later I called DirecTV to give them one more chance. I said I would be disconnecting my service in a few days, and if there was a better rate, it was time to tell me now. Honestly, I wasn't expecting much -- maybe they might offer me $5 or $10 off a month.

Then the bored-sounding rep offered me $60 off a month for 12 months.  I thought there had to be a catch, but no -- she was offering me a rate of about $38 per month, tax included. 

Geez! Yes, I had some complaints about DirecTV, but with that kind of price, I could live with those flaws. I jumped on this deal. 

When I called back Dish to cancel my installation appointment, the rep scoffed at my DirectTV choice, ridiculed DirectTV and offered me $10 more off (so, I guess, a rate of about $62 a month).  I said no thanks.

Of course, the new price only lasts for a year. So next year, DirecTV and Dish, expect to hear from me again. 











Monday, March 26, 2018

Wait, wait, don't tell me ... the facts

I normally love the NPR show "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me." The news-comedy show is almost always clever and funny, and I even learn a few things.

So I was disturbed this week when I heard the show make clear factual errors regarding what some call a Facebook privacy "scandal."

First, "Wait, Wait" host Peter Sagal said that Facebook "sold all our data without telling us." This is not true. First, Facebook did not sell users' data, at least not in the case in question. What it did was allow a Cambridge University researcher named Alexandr Kogan to offer Facebook users an personality survey called "This is Your Digital Life." When people downloaded the app, it allowed Kogan access to information the information they had put on Facebook, and the information that some of their friends had posted.  So not only did Facebook not sell data, this episode did not involve "all our data."

Second, in conversation with a guest, Sagal said that a company known as Cambridge Analytica bought this data from Facebook. That is not true, either.  Cambridge Analytica got the user data from Kogan.

Third, Sagal said Cambridge Analytica "stole the personal data" of Facebook users. This is completely false. As I said above, Cambridge Analytical got the data from Kogan.








 







Monday, March 12, 2018

My day with the SAT

On a recent Saturday morning, a couple hundred teenagers gathered outside a high school waiting to take the SAT.  Some of them may have noticed a 50-something man standing among them in the drizzling rain, and wondered, "What is he doing here?"

That man was me, and I had my reasons.

Some months earlier, I had started thinking about the SAT.  My kids would be taking the college entrance test this year and next and I wanted to learn more about it. I figured the best way to really understand the SAT was to take it.

That wasn't my only reason. The other was that I'd never taken the SAT.  I'd taken a different pre-college test four decades ago. As the SAT has risen to become the college assessment test, I've occasionally wondered how I would do on it.

There was one way to find out.

About a month ahead, I starting preparing. I took practice SATs, and reviewed my answers.  It was quickly clear that I was much stronger on the reading and language portions than on the two math sections. In math, I had a lot of catching up to do.

I studied pre-calculus and algebra topics on Khan Academy.  I tried a book called, "Outsmarting the SAT," that turned out not be smart at all.  I went back and took more practice tests.

There was another factor I had to think about: urination.

I am a committed diet cola drinker -- it gives me a caffeine boost each day (I don't drink coffee). But that cola is also a diuretic, and prompts regular runs to the bathroom. That's not a problem if I'm at home or at work, but on on the strictly scheduled SAT, you can't just run to the toilet any time you want.  And squirming with full bladder while trying to solve a quadratic equation wouldn't be a good thing.

So in the week ahead of the SAT, I gave up diet cola. My bathrooms runs ebbed. But my body still craved caffeine.

So on the day of the test I came prepared with a mint chocolate Clif Bar -- each one has 50 milligrams of caffeine.  I figured this would be just enough to avoid caffeine withdrawal headaches.

As I arrived at the high school where I would take my test, a long line of cars backed out of the parking lot as parents dropped off their kids for the important day. Eventually, I slipped in and grabbed the first available parking spot.

At the front of the school were sheets with names of all the test-takers and our assigned rooms. I was a little early when I got my room and had a small bite of Clif Bar as I waited to enter.

Eventually, our testing supervisor, a friendly woman about my age, ushered us into the room. She checked each person's "ticket" and examined our photo IDs.  Test-takers who has brought a cell phone had to hand it over. Soon a big stack of phones piled up on a table at the front of the room.

When I checked in, I grinned at the proctor and said, "Yes, I am taking the SAT."  She said that was great, and asked if I was going back to school. No, just curious, I said.

I was somewhat nervous for the test. I knew it would require a full morning of hard concentration.  Of course, in my case, it really didn't matter. I wasn't trying to get into college. But I still wanted to do well.

Our supervisor told each person where to sit. I think her main goal was to split up people who knew each other.  I was one of the first people to check in and got assigned a seat right in front. Perfect. I had a great view of the clock, and there would be fewer distractions sitting in front.

There were a lot of preliminary items to fill out on the test form -- name, address, test center code, test booklet code, signature. But soon we launched into the test.

The first part was the reading section -- at 65 minutes, the longest section. There were five reading passages, each with 10 or 11 questions following it.

This was intense reading and sometimes I cupped my hands around my face to make sure I fully concentrated on the passage. This was no time to let your mind wander.

Before reading each passage, I would glance at the questions to give me a hint of what to look for. I think this slightly helped.

I thought it was somewhat mean to put the most scientific and technical of the passages -- one dealing with bacteria and vaccines -- at the end. That was tough. If I take the SAT again, I would consider finding the scientific passage (there always is one) and doing it first.

It was a tiring section and I was grateful we had a 10-minute break afterward (time for more Clif Bar).  I made sure when I got back to my desk to close my eyes and try to clear my head before the next section.

The next section was the writing and language section. My pace was a little slow early on during this section, and I had to pick it up about halfway through. But it worked, and I finished in time. I found that in some cases I didn't have to read the entire passage to understand the question.

Next up was math section with no calculator.  Our supervisor had been diligent about posting the stop times on the board, and then warning us as the clock counted down. But she made a mistake here. She announced that 10 minutes was remaining, when in fact, it was about five minutes. I gave her a curious look -- I was in the front row -- and pointed at the board. She corrected herself quickly.

(Some might say that I shouldn't have corrected her, and got an additional 5 minutes. But the finishing time was clearly printed on the board. If  she hadn't recognized the mistake when I noted it, she would have later, likely causing more confusion and consternation.)

After that section, we had a five minute break. Another bite of Clif Bar.

Then it was on to math section with calculator.  I did my best, but there were definitely questions I had to guess on. One thing you learn preparing for the SAT is to have a mental clock in your head, and recognize when you've just got to move on from a question. You can't keep pounding your head against the wall on a question you're not getting. Make your best guess and go on.

In none of the sections  -- fortunately -- did I really run out of time. I always had at least three minutes to review my answers at the end. This was partly because I knew when give up on certain questions, but it still felt satisfying. 

After that section was a 2-minute "stretch break."  Then came the SAT's "experimental" section.  This is a section where the College Board tries out new material. They insist, however, that some of the questions count (some people doubt that).

Apparently, not everybody gets the same type of section here. I got math with calculator.  You only have 20 minutes on this section, and while this portion was the easiest of the whole test, for a while I feared that I might not finish all the questions.

Here was the problem: For all the other sections, the bubble-in answer sheet had exactly the same number of available answer spaces as there were questions. So in the experimental section, going by the answer sheet, it looked like there were 22 questions. And about halfway through the time, I was alarmed to see that I a lot of question to go.

Then  suddenly, I realized there were only 15 questions. (It's likely the answer sheet is designed to handle more questions because different people get different material on the experimental section.)

This gave me much extra time, and relief. But that extra time actually caused me a problem. With plenty of time to reconsider my answers, I honed in on one question that showed two equations and asked that if  those equations were graphed, how many places would they intersect?

At first, I said zero. Upon reconsideration, I said, no, one and changed my answer. Then I thought again, and said, no it's zero. More erasing. Finally, just as time was expiring. I changed it back to one.

Sigh. As I left the high school, I realized it should have been zero. I had overthought.  I hope they don't count the experimental section!



Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Book review: "The Perfect Score Project" by Debbie Stier

To Debbie Stier, the SAT is spelled FUN.

You heard that right. The standardized test that so many high school students fear, curse and dread -- well, Stier loves. She says she found "joy" in taking it. 

And, after reading "The Perfect Score Project," I'm on Stier's side.

Stier is a mom who was concerned that her son would not get into a decent college -- or perhaps no college at all -- if he didn't score well on the SAT. So she set out to find what it takes to succeed on the famous, or infamous, test.

In one year, Stier took the SAT seven times. Her goal was to achieve a perfect score, hence the name of the book. To find out what it would take to get there, she sampled a gamut of test-preparation techniques, reading books, attending classes, even practicing zen-like relaxation techniques.


Even if you don't find the SAT fun, "The Perfect Score Project" is a great, enjoyable read. If you're a parent you'll empathize with Stier's struggles in getting her son to take the SAT seriously. And her own struggles in trying to raise her score are both amusing and engaging.


Sprinkled through the books are tips are how to do better on the SAT: Take the official study tests, know how to use your calculator well ahead of time, sit at the front of the room (to remove distractions) and remember that the hardest math questions are at the end of the section. Stiers discovers that many SAT prep books aren't that helpful -- and some give completely incorrect advice -- but after much trial and error she finds ones she likes.

Still, "The Perfect Score Project" is not so much about tips and tricks as about the curious world of people who find the SAT a delightful challenge. Stiers finds a subculture of adults who enjoy the challenge of the SAT, and she becomes one of them.

"How many other moms in their forties have discovered they love the SAT?" she wonders.  

It's enough to get me curious. My high school days ended decades ago, but I will soon be taking my first SAT.

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Sunday, January 28, 2018

Book review: "Two Wheels Through Terror" by Glen Heggstad

Come for the terrorism, stay for the bike ride.

That's my take-away from "Two Wheels Through Terror," a fascinating 2004 book by Glen Heggstad.

A couple of events led me to Heggstad's book. First, I was intrigued by an episode of the TV show "Locked Up Abroad that re-enacted Heggstad's one-month ordeal as a prisoner of the Colombian terrorist group ELN in 2001. Separately, after I posted a review of a survival-oriented book online, a reader responded with a recommendation for "Two Wheels Through Terror."

I didn't run out and grab the book immediately, but I'm glad I finally got around to reading it. It's an amazing story of Heggstad's eight-month motorcycle ride from California all the way to the southern tip of South America and back.

What really surprised me is that the kidnapping ordeal turned out to be only a small part of what makes the book interesting.

Going in, I figured I might just read the captivity story, and then skim the rest of the book. Because what could be so interesting about a guy riding a motorcycle for long stretches? Plenty, as it turns out.

Heggstad, a judo instructor, puts a lot of himself into this book, and he's an interesting character. He is disciplined, stubborn, smug, independent and curious. In the book, one of his friends calls Heggstad "selfish," which in some cases seems true, but at other times he shows a gift of introspection and compassion for others.

"This journey was never intended to prove something to anyone else," he writes. "My intention was to better understand the real world and my own character, as well as to explore my own limits."

I admire him for even considering doing this solo trip, and for the careful planning that went into it. He and a friend modified his motorcycle to prepare for the rough road conditions he would encounter. He sewed hidden money pockets into clothes and an extra set of keys was hidden inside his motorcycle, both of which came in handy.

Heggstad even prepared a fake "cover story" in case he ran into trouble (and, of course, he did)  He made a fake ID card saying he was journalist with a motorcycle magazine, and he was ready with a story that he had prostate cancer and couldn't survive without special medicine. The latter element was crucial to winning his release.

It's a quite readable book and it's enjoyable to live vicariously through his travels (even though many of the events weren't "enjoyable" to Heggstad).

His captivity takes place early in the book and by the time it was over I was hooked. Heggsted startles everyone by insisting on continuing his ride afterwards.  He ventures through soaking rainstorms, freezing temperatures, sweltering deserts. He suffers a concussion during one fall. He nearly gets attacked by angry farmers, and is stopped numerous times by corrupt cops looking for a payoff.

Typically, I find most books too wordy,  but "Two Wheels Through Terror" is different -- I would have liked to see more. While he offers up many interesting events, Heggstad sometimes only hints at other experiences, without going into detail. For instance, in Argentina, he refers vaguely to "my new friend in Argentina" -- apparently a woman he grows close to -- but offers little more.

Be sure to read the epilogue. It describes how Heggstad's time in captivity led to feuds and anger among his friends, as they disagreed about what to do.

In all, Heggstad's describes the trip as a life-changing experience.

"At times, at the peak of frustration that travelers in strange lands so often endure, just when I thought I couldn't stand anymore, it was the sparkling eyes of a laughing, soft-haired child, the kindness of an aging Indian woman, or the stunning splendor of the Andes that rocked my spirit and tugged me back eagerly into the wholesome embrace of a land of many faces."

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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Book review: "Confessions of Raving, Unconfined Nut"



I knew little about Paul Krassner before starting this book. But I was eager to learn the background of the man who People Magazine once called "The Father of the Underground Press," so into the rabbit hole I went.

Krassner is a comedian, satirist, and writer who was embedded in the counterculture antics of the 1960s. He was a close friend and co-writer with controversial comic Lenny Bruce. He hung out with , author Ken Kesey (famed for his LSD "acid test") and counterculture guru Timothy Leary. He joined with the members of the "Chicago 7" during the incendiary protests at the Democratic Convention in 1968. 

In “Confessions of Raving, Unconfined Nut,” Krassner's autobiography, he tells stories about all of those people, and more. 

Krassner challenged social standards on obscenity, pornography and political expression. He never met a rule that he didn’t feel should be challenged. The motto of his left-wing newspaper, "The Realist," was “Irreverence is our only sacred cow.”

I don’t envy Krassner’s life – he takes too many drugs and finds himself unable to maintain any stable relationships – but boy does he have some good stories to tell.

There’s this one, for instance, when he was hanging out with the drug-taking Lenny Bruce:

“When I first met him, he would shoot up in the hotel bathroom with the door closed, but now he just sat on his bed and casually fixed up while we were talking. That’s what we were doing one time when Lenny nodded out, the needle still stuck in his arm. Suddenly the phone rang and startled him. His arm flailed, and the hypodermic came flying across the room, hitting the wall like a dart just a few feet from the easy chair in which I uneasily sat.”

Then there was the day, during his time as editor of "The Realist," when two Catholic schoolgirls were interviewing him. Two women that worked at the newspaper walked in totally nude. "'Sorry to interrupt, Paul,” said Sheila, “but it’s time for our weekly orgy.’ The interviewers left in a hurry.'"
That was his one and only threesome, he said.

Krassner was most famous -- or infamous -- for a hoax. In 1967, he "revealed" supposedly unpublished excerpts from William Manchester's book on John F. Kennedy, "The Death of a President." In fact, it was all written by Krassner, including one passage which described Lyndon Johnson having sex with Kennedy's body. This earned Krassner a lot of hate mail. Which he loved. 

After the 1960s, with so many taboos being broken and boundaries challenged, Krassner's star faded. He found it harder to shock people. By the 1980s, he said, "Bad taste had become an industry."

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Monday, December 11, 2017

Book review: "So Close to Home" by Michael J. Tougias and Alison O'Leary

Michael Tougias is my favorite author. I've read three of his books -- "A Storm Too Soon," "Overboard," and "Fatal Forecast" -- and loved them all. In each, Tougias tells a riveting story of survival at sea.

So when I saw a new book by Tougias, "So Close to Home," I grabbed it.

In some ways, I was disappointed with this book, which is co-written by Alison O'Leary. There is less page-turning survival drama than in Tougias' past books.

On the other hand, there's a lot of good history, and that almost makes up for the lack of near-death moments.

In "So Close to Home," Tougias and O'Leary describe how German U-boats hunted and sank scores of ships in the Gulf of Mexico during World War II. This was a revelation to me -- I had no idea Nazi submarines were prowling right off the U.S. Gulf Coast.

"So Close to Home" tells its story mostly from three perspectives. First, there is 8-year-year Sonny Downs, who is traveling in 1942 with his parents and sister aboard a ship through the Gulf of Mexico as they return from a year in Central America. Sonny's father had worked as a mechanic at a banana plantation in Panama and Colombia.

Then there are two German submarine captains Harro Schacht and Erich Wurdemann, young Nazi sailors who are eager to sink as many American and Allied ships as they can.  It is Wurdemann's U-boat that sinks the ship carrying the Downs'.

The Downs story is a good one, and through them the authors manage to capture a lot of elements of this period. Sonny's parents knew that U-boats were prowling the area, and were frustrated that they were not allowed to get off the ship at an earlier stop. The dialog, though certainly recreated by Tougias and O'Leary, is believable.

For me, one of the most interesting -- and occasionally disturbing --aspects of the book was the authors' sympathetic portrayal of the Nazis. We see the U-boat captains from the perspective of the German side. When their torpedoes miss, it seems as if Tougias and O'Leary feel sorry for them, even though the failed attack meant that innocent people are not killed.

At one point, after Wurdermann's sub attempts to attack a convoy of ships, the defenders fight back and "the crew of U-506 had to endure an agonizing hour of being depth-charged." They had to "endure" being attacked? Oh, I'm sorry, are we disturbing you while you're trying to kill people?


That said, Tougias and O'Leary shed light on one astonishing episode where a U-boat sunk the British ship Laconia, and then spent days trying to help the survivors. Even as the Nazis were helping, Allied planes were attacking the submarines, forcing the Germans to submerge and abort rescue efforts.

It's a bizarre picture: Yes, the German showed much compassion toward the victims of the sinking -- but keep in mind that they were only victims because the Nazis has torpedoed the ship.

In the interesting Author's Notes section at the end of the book, O'Leary acknowledges being conflicted about portraying the Germans. "Can one both admire and despise the actions of the sub crew, or mourn for the dead and their fractured families while at the same time acknowledging that the sinking of ships is a common and accepted part of being at war?"

If you like this type of book, there are others that I would recommend. "All Brave Sailors" tells the amazing story of British sailors who survived a World War II attack by a German ship. "The Wolf"  recounts the little-known exploits of a German "commerce raider" ship during World War I.

And certainly, I would recommend any of these Michael Tougias books: "A Storm Too Soon," "Overboard," and "Fatal Forecast."

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